The preseason is finally over. The final day of the final test at Jerez saw a familiar pattern unfold, with the factory Hondas and factory Yamahas fastest, the rest some way behind. Jorge Lorenzo led the session for seven hours and fifty minutes, until Casey Stoner stepped up the pace. Was it so important to stage a last-lap dash and steal top spot, one journalist asked? "Nope, just trying to be cheeky!" The World Champion responded.
Despite sitting just off the top of the timesheets for much of the day - until he decided to make his point rather forcefully, that is - Stoner is blisteringly fast. In the middle of the day, the Australian posted a run of 10 laps, all but one of which were in the 1'39 bracket, the only aberration a low 1'40. Both Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo also posted long runs, but their pace was all low 1'40s, the 1'39s only coming on shorter runs with new tires. But for all three, what is most impressive is the metronomic rhythm of the lap times, Jorge Lorenzo being the most robot-like of the trio.
Stoner was happiest about finally being fast at his bogey track. Ever since he first rode the circuit, back in his days in the Spanish championship when he was a young teenager, he had had problems with the circuit, disliking its layout and never quite getting to grips with it. That dislike attracted bad luck too, Stoner always suffering some misfortune or other whenever he raced at Jerez. To leave on top of the timesheets, after three days of consistent domination was frankly a relief.
The bike was in pretty good shape, though Pedrosa said the Honda RC213V still needed some improvements in braking and corner entry, that being the bike's weakest point. But the Yamahas and Hondas were fairly evenly matched, said both Stoner and Pedrosa. The Australian pointed out that it had always been this way, with little real difference between the bikes. "Some days one bike is better, some days the other; some days one tire is better, some days the other," he said. "Somebody very wise said to me 'Riders need to be arrogant about this, because if you don't blame something else, there's nothing to blame but yourself. If you can't do it, then there's no reason to keep coming back to try to win each week.'" That self-belief is what keeps riders going, and without it, they may as well retire.
Over at Yamaha, they are less convinced of the parity of the Yamaha and Honda, but they are very confident that they have closed the gap massively. Both Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo described this winter as the best preseason he had ever had, and were very happy with the machine they had to start the season with. The extra capacity cut the power deficit to Honda, and the trademark Yamaha handling allowed them to benefit. Where the Hondas are complaining of chatter and instability, the Yamaha is pretty well sorted, with only set up now to fine tune. This is where you would want to be if you were to start a championship, especially against Casey Stoner on the Honda.
Over at Ducati, things were a little more difficult, though clear progress had been made. Valentino Rossi had cut his deficit to Stoner by eight tenths of a second, the problem being that Rossi is still over nine tenths behind the Australian. The team had lost a day of testing due to the weather on Saturday, but even worse, they had been headed in the wrong direction. Fortunately, they reversed direction again on Sunday, with a big improvement in his times as a result.
The good news was that they had found some of the front-end feel Rossi was looking for, the bad news was that the bike still suffered understeer, wanting to run wide in corners, with little the Italian could do about it. On Sunday evening, Rossi described the situation thus: "This is the real Ducati." This is what the bike is capable of in its current guise, with only small improvements to be gained from set up. The positive for Rossi was that he felt much more confident this year than he did last, but he is still no where near the front. Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa were too far away, and then there was Spies, Crutchlow and Dovizioso. Rossi felt he would be leading the group behind that, and setting his sights on satellite Yamahas. That is hardly what the goal of a nine-time World Champion should be.
Nicky Hayden has slightly different problems, as witnessed by the differing wheelbases the two teammates are working with. Hayden, too, has understeer, but he is not suffering with it as much as Rossi does. Hayden's problems are more at the rear, at finding traction. But the American was mainly focused on getting to Qatar and racing; he felt the next test would be to see where Ducati really stands, and it is only possible to judge that by actually riding with the rest of the field, and seeing how the Ducati stacks up.
The Yamahas are clearly the cream of the satellite crop, both Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso mixing it with the factory Ducatis. Alvaro Bautista is strong on the Gresini Honda, while Stefan Bradl is making big steps on the LCR machine. The German rookie has made rapid strides on Lucio Cecchinello's satellite RC213V, and is already close to Bautista, ending the test less than a tenth behind the Spaniard.
The CRT pack is split down the middle, with the teams with the most help from Aprilia at the front. Randy de Puniet was the fastest of the CRT riders, exactly as had been expected, but the Power Electronics Aspar rider came very close to the satellite Ducatis. De Puniet finished just 0.022 behind Karel Abraham on the Cardion AB Ducati, demonstrating rather graphically the point of the CRT machines. Abraham's bike costs between 2.5 and 3 million euros a year to lease, at the end of which you hand the machine back to Ducati. De Puniet's bike costs around 1 million a year to run, and at the end of the season, Aspar will have ownership of the bike, and is free to either put it in his front room or try and sell it to another CRT team. Though it is a glib and unfair comparison, it is hard to resist pointing to the fact that the Cardion AB team is paying 1 million euros for each one hundredth of a second they are faster than a CRT bike.
The big surprise of the test is Danilo Petrucci on the Came Ioda - the Italian electric door manufacturer's name is pronounced "Kah-may" but as an English speaker, it is hard to see past the past tense of the verb to come. The young Italian ended the test behind the two Aspar Aprilias, and some 3.1 seconds off the time of Stoner. But given that the bike is extremely new, and Petrucci has had little experience with the Bridgestone tires, that should be regarded as a pretty strong performance all in all. The fact that the Ioda project is run by Giampiero Sacchi - formerly of Aprilia - and his team consists of most of Max Biaggi's former Aprilia World Superbike crew points to the level of knowledge and experience with the bike the team has on board, and Sacchi is also legendary for his ability to spot riding talent. We could well hear a lot more from Danilo Petrucci before the year is out.
From some angles, the CRT project looks rather worrying, as 6 CRT bikes were slower than the time Claudio Corti set on his Kalex during the Moto2 test. But that comparison is not fair for a number of reasons: though the Dunlops are widely regarded as being inferior tires to the MotoGP Bridgestones, the Kalex has nearly three years of development on it, and in that time, those bikes have made massive steps forward. Some of the bikes slower than Corti have had just a few months' development time; the FTR Honda being used by Michele Pirro has seen just two days of testing with Pirellis, and another two and a half days' testing at Jerez with the Bridgestones, while Pirro himself has only just started to use the Bridgestones.
There is still a lot of potential left in the CRT machines, but there are also mountains of work in front of them. And in the case of the NGM Forward Suter BMW ridden by Colin Edwards, even masses of work may not help: that bike has been under development for nearly 18 months, and it is still suffering from chatter and issues stemming from having to develop a brand new electronics system. The CRT machines didn't show themselves up the way that so many people had feared, but - with the exception of Randy de Puniet on the Aprilia - they have not set the world alight either. There is still some way to go.